San Francisco is famous for its important role in the 60’s Summer of Love and flower power – and yes, I was listening Scott McKenzie’s “Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” while driving into the city – but is a hippie city no more. Instead, the city is a hipster heaven.
A unique one that is. Charming houses, a relaxed vibe, numerous bookstores, street art, coffee bars and an incredible offer of restaurants. Below are my highlights of three days of savouring San Francisco and I have to admit that cycling might have seeped in to a couple of them. So that’s an activity highlight. If that is even a thing.
Golden Gate Bridge
Without a doubt San Fran’s most famous landmark is the red steel beauty that is the Golden Gate Bridge. Its length of over 2.5 km (1.7 mi) made it the longest bridge in the world when it opened to public in 1937, and is still impressive.
After a Highway 1 road trip we drove into the city from the South in the evening. We felt overly excited driving over the bridge in the dark. What an incredible entrance, streetlights shining bright in the night skies, cars making their way over the strait that connects San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of our first day exploring the city we headed to the Aquatic Park Pier to enjoy the golden hour. A golden hour that was the most spectacular I have ever seen. Sun rays were not just adding a golden glow to the landscape but made the skies look as if a pot full of golden paint had exploded up there. All of a sudden, the name Golden Gate Bridge made total sense for a bridge that is painted red.
Renting a bike is a quick and easy affair in San Francisco as rental companies can be found everywhere, especially around Fisherman’s Wharf. The city’s many hills are obviously less attractive to ride, but the drive up to the Golden Gate Bridge is relatively flat. Mind you – relatively flat does not mean it is flat.
The day on which we chose to hop on a bike was a misty and windy one, but we are Dutchies so cycling in the wind is what we are used to so we were up for it. What we are not used to though are hills, and so it turned out to be quite an exercise to get up on the bridge. We did make it all the way to the bridge on our bikes, and we were proud to have made it as most tourists give up and walk the steep zigzag path up the hill instead.
The bridge itself is (also) crowded with tourists, but it is a truly great experience to ride it nonetheless. Just make sure you use that bicycle bell!
The views from the 200+ metre (746 ft.) high bridge are stunning. The steel construction, the panorama of the city and the sights of intriguing Alcatraz all beg for attention. The only thing that could have made the experience even better, is if there would be a café waiting on the other side of the strait.
The painted ladies are by far San Fran’s most famous houses. Their charming pastel coloured wooden facades and unique location – lined up on the steep Steiner street across a stretch of grass on the hill that is Alamo Square Park, make for a postcard photo. These 1890’s houses are definitely a must to see when you are in town, but there are many more photogenic houses waiting for your camera to click. Exploring various neighbourhoods by bicycle is a big must, but is not the most efficient way to go around town. At least not if you are anything like me and want to stop and take a picture of yet another beautiful house in almost every street.
Food and drinks
Coffees, markets, bars, restaurants, specialty stores. San Fran is a hipster heaven as much as it is a foodie walhalla. Whether you’re in for a delicious coffee, a craft beer, culinary afternoon snack or chocolate, you will find it here.
- Go visit the Ferry Building Market Place and indulge in chocolates, freshly baked bread and cheese.
- Choose a restaurant on the Firsherman’s Wharf and treat yourself to Dungeness crab, a real Pacific Northwest specialty.
- Relax the feet and sit down at Sparrow Bar and Kitchen. Select a couple of small plates from the midday menu at savour the day.
- Enjoy a beer & food at the cosy outside terrace of craft brewery San Francisco Brewing Co.
I love bookstores. If you have read my New York travel story you know how much time (and money) I could spend inside a lovely bookshop. I love the books, obviously, but my love for bookshops is also about being away from the digital world for a moment. To be able to enjoy a silent moment in the big city, take a deep breath of air and fill your nostrils with the smell of books. A dazzling collection of words, new information and inspiration at your fingertips.
As part of its cultural DNA, San Francisco offers a wealth of independent bookstores. From those that played a prominent role in the Beat movement to those that sell books in just one genre. So go for it and treat yourself to a new book, a new story or a new resolution to learn more about a topic that interests you. I took home the inspiring words of one of America’s greatest travel writers, Essential Muir: a selection of John Muir’s Best Writings.
Throughout the city you will find mural paintings and graffitti art. My favourite was without a doubt Balmy Alley, where muralists have shared their art and political messages in the form of brightly coloured walls and garage doors since the mid-80’s.
Another interesting sight for lovers of mural paintings – and lovers of feminism – is the Women’s Building, the first women owned and operated community center in the USA that is adorned with images of female groundbreakers.
Every (big) city has neighbourhood parks where families and friends get together at the end of the day, or gather around a picnic or BBQ on Summer days. Most of the time just one of these parks makes it to the city shortlist for tourists, for its location, history, beauty, size or just all of this combined. In San Francisco that park is the Golden Gate Park. The park offers numerous green fields, flower beds, a botanical garden, a museum, several lakes, a Japanese Tea Garden and a Conservatory of Flowers. It is so big that the park alone can keep you busy for days – not a surprise if you learn that it is even 20 percent larger than New York’s Central Park.
Besides the Golden Gate Park however, San Francisco has a wealth of other scenic stretches of green and yellow that are worth a visit.
Take a ride to the river side and enjoy a picnic in the park or on the beach of Crissy Field. Sit back, relax and enjoy the stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
More beautiful beaches with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge can be found on the other side of the city. You can reach them by car but can also visit them as part of the wonderful coastal trail or a bike ride along Lincoln Boulevard, as stone steps will take you down to the beach.
In beautiful Alamo Square Park all tourists gather at the side of Stenton street to admire the famous painted ladies. For me, the real treat of this small park can be found on the other side of the hill, where the locals get together to walk their dogs and chitchat in the afternoon sunlight.
Crazy steep streets
San Francisco is a city that will keep your legs fit just by walking a couple of blocks. The city is built on hills which means steep streets. So steep it makes stairs instead of a sidewalk a necessity in quite a number of instances.
It is unclear what the steepest street in the entire city is, but a sure thing is that measurements have been made up to a 41% grade. Famous Lombard Street, known for its eight sharp switchbacks that were constructed as residents complained it was too steep to drive their cars through, now ‘only’ holds a 16% grade. This ‘crookedest street in the world’ is a real tourist attraction with rental cars driving downhill in queue. My tip: work those legs to get uphill and then enjoy so much the curved ride down on your bicycle.
Let me immediately follow-up on that with another tip: do not determine your bike route through town based on a regular map. We decided to cross the entire city centre but instead of an easy ride it felt like a Tour de France cycling stage in the Pyrenean mountains. Impossible!
A more relaxed way to cross the inner city centre is using the buses, or the fun yet crazy touristy cable car. There once were 23 different cable car lines, but only three lines remain today.
For all public transport except for the cable car but including the ferry, you can use the Clipper Card. You have to buy one for $5 and can then load it with a minimum of $3. Depending on how much and how far you plan to travel, the Clipper Card can be a cheaper alternative than buying tickets from a vending machine.
A single ride in a Cable Car $6 per person, a day ticket is $15. My advice is to take the cable car only if you want to enjoy the experience, not because you want get from A to B.